Matt Diebler & Jacob Gillman
BlueCat catches up with past winners Matt Diebler and Jacob Gillman. The writing partners discuss their experience obtaining a manager and running their new production company – Verboten Films.
1.) When did you start writing screenplays and how many have you completed?
Jacob and I started writing together in early 2010. So far, we’ve written two features: Horse Girl (which won the 2011 Fellini award) and An Occasional Hell, which came together in late 2011. And in the past two years, we’ve amassed a whole collection of notebooks with ideas for more.
2.) How did winning the Fellini award propel your screenwriting career?
First of all, winning the Fellini award gave us a huge boost of confidence that inspired us to keep working and pushing forward with our writing, even when we were feeling less-than-optimistic. It gave us fantastic criticism to learn from and a sense of validation in our particular brand of storytelling. But more concretely, it helped us land a manager (more on that later).
3.) Tell us about your writing process.
To a certain extent, we’re still trying to work our writing process out. We approached our two screenplays in two very different ways. But we have a few key components we’ve learned work for us no matter how we ultimately write.
The first thing we do (something I would recommend to anyone that wants to write) is keep notebooks everywhere. If we think of something funny or see something that strikes us as potentially interesting, we write it down. Sometimes it’s a line of dialog or a phrase that we like. Sometimes it’s an undeveloped nugget of story. Regardless, we write it down. That way when we start ramping up the creative process to start a new project, we have a wealth of ideas to inspire us. Some are good and some are terrible, but they’re all better than staring at a blank page.
Once we have a general idea for what we want to write, we try to take a road trip together. There’s nothing like being forced to sit in a car together with no TV and no internet to foster some focused brainstorming. (And as a side note, I think that not being able to look each other in the eye makes it easier to pitch crappy ideas without being self-conscious or feeling judged.) This is where we develop the characters and construct the general story points.
Once we’ve pounded out a solid creative outline, we start writing. Here is where our approach is still in flux. With Horse Girl, we worked through each individual line of dialog as a team. It took forever and we argued quite a bit, but the final product was pre-edited and really nice shape. With An Occasional Hell, our second screenplay, we would discuss the content of the scene to be written, one of us would compose the scene by himself, and then we’d pass it back and forth editing, re-editing, and coming to compromises on the content. It still involved a lot of arguing, but it was faster. And the final product needed many more rewrites to get it to a draft we were comfortable showing around. So both approaches have their pros and cons. Of the two, we prefer the more meticulous “Horse Girl” model, but that’s only if we have the luxury of time.
4.) Do you have a manager now? If so, what was it like obtaining one?
Getting a manager is a tough thing, and we were lucky to snag one. After our success with the BlueCat Fellini award in early 2011, we were able to market Horse Girl as an “award winning screenplay.” With that kind of outside validation, we were able to get more people to put their eyes on it. We gave a copy to everyone we knew (after we’d registered it with the WGA, of course), and hoped that if enough people read it and enjoyed it, somehow a door would open for us. Luckily, a friend passed it to a friend who happened to be starting his own management company. He gave us a call, we took a meeting, and he offered to represent us.
In terms of advice, I know it’s cliché, but the best thing you can do is hone your craft and keep getting people to put their eyes on your work. This industry works through friends of friends of friends, and if you can impress people enough for them to start talking about you, you’re making a huge step forward.
5.) I understand you’ve started your second screenplay, titled “An Occasional Hell”. What’s it about?
An Occasional Hell (which we finished in early 2012) is a dark comedy about three small town church-goers trying to free themselves from the sense of imprisonment they experience in their daily lives. A pastor’s wife with social-anxiety disorder, a fetishist with a conservative spouse, and an abused housewife all try to discover themselves, only to face the consequences of breaking free. The three stories are separate but parallel, coinciding and intermingling through their association at the church, ultimately culminating in an interconnected web of events that lead to each story’s dramatic conclusion. It’s Magnolia had it been written and directed by John Waters.
6.) Is your writing process different now that you’re a more experienced screenwriter?
As I said, we’re still trying to work out the specifics of our writing process as a team, but overall, we’re learning to be more disciplined. Sometimes we have to write whether we want to or not; it’s generally better to keep moving forward, even if you’ll have to do more rewrites later. And since we’ve starting doing a little directing, we’ve become a lot more aware of real-world practicalities when writing, of how a scene can be shot for a budget. We do our best to not let it hamper our creativity, but it’s a useful thing to keep in mind.
7.) You have also started a production company called Verboten Films. Can you tell us a bit about that?
We used some of the Fellini Award prize money to open a production company we called “Verboten Films.” At first, we opened it with plans to try to raise money and shoot Horse Girl all on our own, but we realized early on that we’d be better off getting much more practice directing and navigating the world of a “filmmaker” before investing that much time and energy into a such an ambitious project. Instead, we’ve spent the past year using the Verboten Films label to direct music videos. So far, we’ve finished two low budget videos for a fantastic indie band in Los Angeles, and we’ve submitted our most recent, Baby Its Magic (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TDHE9Pbh2E), to a number of film festivals around the country. It was most recently featured at the Not Enough! Music and Arts Festival in Portland Oregon.
8.) What are your goals for the future?
Our long-term goal is to earn a living as a filmmaking duo, writing and directing movies that have a specific point of view. But in the short-term, we want to start directing narrative shorts to fill out our directors’ reel, gain some valuable experience, and give us something else to submit to festivals. And while we’re at it, we’re hoping to start working on our next screenplay. We’ve written a screenplay a year for the past two years, and I’d love to keep the tradition going.
9.) Would you recommend other screenwriters to enter the BlueCat Screenwriting Competition? Any advice for them?
I would absolutely recommend other screenwriters enter the BlueCat Screenwriting Competition. The constructive criticism alone is worth the price of admission. Whether you agree with everything they say or not (and you don’t always have to), it’s a fantastic resource to read professional opinions of your work. And don’t get discouraged; we’ve had some readers completely hate the screenplays we’ve written, even the one that won this competition. Not every screenplay is going to appeal to every reader, so keep at it. But always at least consider what your readers have to say.
Also, as a general rule, love your characters. Even your villains. People really respond when they’re reading a screenplay that feels like it has genuine affection for its subjects. Even if you’re abusing them, do it with love. If you’re indifferent to your characters, the audience will be too.
And finally, keep trying. We’ve lost most of the contests we’ve entered, but we won one of them too. Keep retooling and refining your work and keep putting it out there. You may never get anything made by putting things out there, but you’ll definitely never get anything made keeping it hidden on your computer’s desktop.